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The Relapse And Recovery Process

Last Updated: Tue, January 23, 2024

“Relapse is part of the recovery process.” We’ve all heard this saying before, right? Some of us have even spoken it ourselves, but what does it mean? Does it mean we should expect to relapse? Actively aim to relapse? Is that considered failure or progress since it’s “part of the process”. If I don’t relapse, does that mean I’m not missing a key stage of recovery? No; absolutely not.

Is the phrase just something friends and family came up with to cushion the “guilt” blow to addicts? In other words, is it a reassuring phrase to simply keep addicts from spiraling back out of control once again? That’s likely part of it, but certainly not the entire reason.

To say that relapse is part of recovery is a bit of a misnomer. Sobriety is to abstain from alcohol or whatever your drug of choice may be. A relapse for a sober person, means using said drugs and alcohol. This means relapsing is the exact opposite of sobriety, so to say that one is part of the other’s process doesn’t make much sense; it’s almost akin to saying “dropping out of med school” is part of the process to becoming a doctor.

So why do we use the phrase at all?

Because while the two concepts (relapse and recovery) are mutually exclusive, the phrase isn’t wrong. Most people that are sober – and have been sober for many years – relapsed at one point or another. However, the relapse served as a reminder to addicts instead of a slippery slope into addiction. For those that relapse, many bounce back stronger. Sure, they reset their sobriety date, but their brain chemistry has achieved a balance and they’re no longer looking back on their time with drugs as a positive experience.

But does this mean you need to relapse to recover? No, and if you do relapse, don’t guilt or shame yourself; understand what you did and move forward.

Stop Drinking, Start Something Else

Every addict wishes their disease could be cured, but it can’t. Becoming sober isn’t something that’s “finished”, it continues as a lifelong struggle. And that’s what’s meant by “relapse is a part of the recovery process”. In your lifespan, you’ll get low, feel alone, or reflect on the “good ol’ days” with rose-tinted goggles. These factors can cause you to relapse.

If you could abstain altogether and simply stay sober, your life would be much easier, but it almost never works out that way. That said, there’s a difference between a relapse that destroys your progress and spirals out of control, and a relapse that’s caused by a moment of weakness and puts you back on the path to sobriety.

If the relapse causes a complete descent back into a routine of drugs and alcohol, then many doctors and peers agree, that person wasn’t ready to get sober yet. However, for those who relapse and, instead of sinking into old habits, return to their sobriety with new motivation, then the progress they’ve made hasn’t been lost to a relapse, it’s been enhanced.

It’s all too common for people to reflect on the “good ol’ days” – emphasis on “good”. We’ve all had a meal or treat we remember loving as children, but try as an adult and see that it’s nowhere near as good as we remembered. In some regard, a relapse is like that, where our brains tell us what we need and we cave. However, if you have conviction and you’re committed to staying sober this time around, a relapse can be the catalyst for you to renew your dedication with gusto.

Use A Sober Counter To Calculate

Numerous studies have tied the duration of abstinence to recovery, health, and relapse. What they’ve found is people who are sober for a longer amount of time tend to relapse less. For example, people who have been sober for less than a year are more likely to relapse. In fact, two out of every three adults will relapse if they have been sober for under a year.

Meanwhile, the recovery rate for people who make it beyond a year of sobriety increases to over 50%. (NIH, 2007). That’s a significant difference, especially when you factor in that 90% of individuals in recovery suffered “at least one mild to moderate slip” (Psychology Today, 2012).

In other words, despite being opposites, it does seem as though “relapse” is intrinsically connected to many people's “recovery”, but not all. And while you should always set out with the intention of staying sober indefinitely, relapses do happen and it doesn’t mean you should just give up. Often times, we learn more from our mistakes and failures than we do our successes. We don’t seek to fail, but we don’t get bogged down by it either, we see what we can learn from a failure, grow, and improve.

Using a sober counter app (like I Am Sober) can help you continue to abstain from drinking or start to recognize there’s a problem. A sober counter is more than simply counting the months, weeks, days, and hours, it’s a full calendar that can show you how long you went between relapses. For instance, if you start noticing the margin between relapses is getting smaller, then you may need to rethink your strategy and/or support group to get sober. However, if you notice a different trend, that you lasted 7 days, then 24, then 90, you can see your progress and start to understand how your recovery has improved despite the relapses.

Remember that drugs and alcohol affect your brain. Not just your judgement and behavior, but the chemical balance as well. By choosing to get sober, you’re choosing to overwrite your brain. And overwriting a habit is just as hard as starting a new one. Simply consider how many New Year’s Resolutions are broken within the month of January. It’s not easy to rewrite your brain, but what these studies show is that with time, it does get easier.

I Am Sober is a free app that helps you get some control back in your life.

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